As expected, the UK is to allow private 'top-up' payments for costly treatments within the National Health Service.

The decision to allow top-up payments marks a major shift in philosophy to the 60-year-old health service, which currently prevents patients paying privately for treatment. Those people who choose to pay are typically denied free NHS care.

Now the Health Secretary, Alan Johnson, has announced that "a greater range of more expensive therapies will be available to more patients on the NHS, reducing the need for them to seek private care". By acting this way, the minister is adopting the recommendations made by Mike Richards, the national clinical director for cancer, in a review that proposes a package of measures designed to substantially improve access to medicines on the NHS.

The announcement came at the same time as the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence laid out plans that will give it more flexibility to assess the cost-effectiveness of drugs for the terminally ill.

Presenting the report to the House of Commons, Mr Johnson said that "the measures set out, together with the improvements proposed by NICE, mean that a greater range of more expensive therapies will be available to more patients on the NHS – reducing the need for them to seek private care". He added that "a small number of patients may still choose to pay for additional drugs not available on the NHS. But I have agreed that, from today, NHS care must never be withdrawn in these cases — as long as private treatment takes place in a private facility".

Mr Johnson concluded that "patients and the public can be confident that from today, there will be greater clarity, greater fairness and, most importantly, greater access to a wider range of drugs.”

Commenting on the moves, Richard Barker, director general of the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry, estimated that "over the next four years, the Department of Health will make savings of £2.9 billion on the current medicines bill, so there is funding available to pay for new, more effective medicines – medicines that are already available in other countries." He added that "as an industry, we have shown increasing flexibility in pioneering patient access schemes to get new medications to patients faster".

What patients need now, Dr Barker added, is for further steps to be taken in the overhaul of the NICE decision-making process to make it faster, simpler, more transparent and to reflect the broader value criteria."

There will be much more on the 'top-up' plan and the NICE announcement in tomorrow's PharmaTimes UK News elert.